Laulala gets his big chance as Munster go on another mission


There was something old-fashioned about last week’s tryless first bout in the Thomond Park cauldron and such are the stakes here and the nature of these beasts this will probably be another intense arm wrestle.

A win won’t clinch the pool but the losers will end the day on 10 or 11 points, and so face a daunting task to qualify.

It’s once more into the breachfor an injury-hit Munster, with Keith Earls now sidelined with a groin strain sustained in training last Tuesday.

Sharp and dangerous though Earls looked and well though he played, his loss is not as damaging as it might have been, given Casey Laulala resumes his midfield partnership with James Downey. Laulala must be disappointed with how things have gone so far at Munster, but this is his big chance.

Saracens looked to have more shape and balance when Richard Wigglesworth came on and Owen Farrell switched to outhalf, and so they start, with Joel Tomkins at outside centre, while George Kruis is called into the backrow, with Kelly Brown switching to number eight and Ernst Joubert dropping to the bench.

The benching of Charlie Hodgson suggests Saracens will revert even more to their grimly conservative brand of uber-direct and physical rugby.

It will be an examination of Munster’s resilience as much as anything, but Munster have missed the fewest tackles (14), conceded the least metres (196) and have the joint lowest try tally against (one). But then again, Saracens have only conceded one try and have leaked the fewest points (29).

Something’s gotta give, but it won’t give easily.

The Rob Penney revolution has been exciting and refreshing and brave, but after recourse to some of the old traditional virtues in the second-half surge for a bonus point at home to Edinburgh in round two, the penny seemed to drop, as it were, last week.

Desire and intensity

It would be too crude to suggest the performance was based solely on desire and intensity, but the cocktail was as heady a brew as it has ever been, along with the way they went after a previously perfect Sarries lineout and scrum, and collectively flooded the breakdown.

That ran the risk of leaving their defence light out wide, but with Doug Howlett setting ridiculously high standards in everything he did, and Simon Zebo not far behind, the threat rarely materialised.

However, while the crowd might rightly grumble about Pascal Gauzerre’s pedantic performance and in particular his interpretations at scrum time, Munster’s overstepped the mark at the breakdown and they can ill-afford the concession of 18 penalties again.

Alongside the remarkable James Coughlan and Peter O’Mahony, can 22-year-old Dave O’Callaghan somehow replicate his storming debut last week in a more inhospitable and a less inspiring arena?

Vicarage Road (capacity 17,000) is no Welford Road or Franklin’s Gardens, and Saracens are off to their new Allianz Arena in Barnet next February, but this is a big game for them and they are anticipating an attendance of around 15,000. The forecast is for the game to kick-off in sunshine.

Logically Saracens should have the ability, with home advantage, to overturn a six-point defeat. And the history of these back-to-back games supports this theory. But this wouldn’t be the first time the Irish, and particularly Munster, defy logic in this competition.

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